Old growth

Chugach National Forest celebrates 100th birthday

Posted: Sunday, July 22, 2007


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  The sun sets behind trees in Chugach National Forest on the eastern coast of the Kenai Peninsula. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Hikers climb above the tree line on the Resurrection Pass Trail near the forest's western perimeter.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

America's northernmost national temperate rainforest turns 100 years old Monday.

The 5.6 million-acre Chugach National Forest includes much of the eastern portion of the Kenai Peninsula, islands within and the coastline surrounding Prince William Sound and the Copper River Delta region. Roughly the size of New Hampshire, it is the second largest forest in the National Forest System. Only the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska is larger.

A roadless wilderness over 98 percent of its territory (5.4 million acres), the Chugach is home to a broad array of wildlife, includes several world-class wild salmon runs, and boasts some of the most stunning scenery anywhere on the planet.


The sun sets behind trees in Chugach National Forest on the eastern coast of the Kenai Peninsula.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

As such, it has become a Southcentral Alaska playground. Its proximity to Alaska's major population centers makes the Chugach attractive to state residents and Outside visitors alike. Millions travel to the region each year to enjoy fishing, hunting, camping and more, and their economic impact is critical. But its environment also faces pressures from increasing recreational and commercial use and residential and industrial development.

The forest exists today in a relatively pristine condition thanks largely to conservation efforts begun more than a century ago. Gifford Bryce Pinchot, appointed to the National Forest Commission in 1896 by President Grover Cleveland, began developing plans for the nation's western forest reserve. By 1898, the Division of Forestry which he headed was renamed the U.S. Forest Service. According to Wikipedia, he sought to change the public land policy from one that dispersed resources to private owners to one that maintained federal ownership and management of public lands.

In 1904, under Theodore Roosevelt's administration, Pinchot sent William Langille to Alaska to survey lands that might be added to the Forest Reserve System. Langille found the forest acres threatened "by vested interests that would exploit them for their own selfish interests ... ." Although meeting resistance from Richard Ballinger, commissioner of the General Land Office, Pinchot's effort to create of the Chugach National Forest continued, arguing among other things that scientific management of forests would be profitable.

By 1907, President Roosevelt was ready to act. On July 23, he moved to add a total of 23 million acres in Southcentral Alaska to his national forest program. By 1909, the conservationist president had created 42 million acres of national forest, 53 national wildlife refuges, and 18 special interest areas, including the Grand Canyon.

The effort to protect the Chugach Forest from overuse and exploitation has continued over the years. In the past quarter century, various portions of the Chugach have been recommended for wilderness designation, a move that requires an act of Congress.

A 2.1 million-acre region named the Nellie Juan-College Fjord Wilderness Study Area was created in western Prince William Sound in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and since then has been managed for its wilderness values, according to information from the U.S. Forest Service. In 1984, the service's Chugach Forest Plan recommended designating the nearly 1.6 million acres as wilderness, but no action was taken. According to the forest service, large increases in public use near Whittier, private land interests and concerns, subsistence needs and potential mineral values led to a reduced recommendation in 2002 that 1.4 million acres get the wilderness designation. That's roughly 25 percent of the entire forest.

According to information provided by Forest Service Public Affairs Officer Rebecca Talbott, the 2002 revision process also saw public advocacy for recommending additional areas within the Chugach for wilderness designation, including parts of the Kenai Peninsula and the eastern Copper River Delta. The forest service ultimately decided against seeking the designation for the eastern delta region after hearing from the fishing industry, an Alaska Native corporation and other resource management agencies that had argued a wilderness designation might be detrimental to meeting the management intent of ANILCA.

Talbott said the forest supervisor ultimately decided that existing law was sufficient to protect the wilderness of the delta region, and decided against seeking the wilderness designation there.

While the 5.6 million acres of the Chugach would appear to qualify, Congress has so far designated no acreage whatsoever as wilderness and the latest recommendation is still pending.

"People would not see that much of a change" under a wilderness designation, Talbott said, adding that waters within the forest area are managed by the state of Alaska, while the National Forest Service manages the land base.

"Because it is proposed wilderness, we are required to maintain it as such until Congress takes action either one way or another. Until that time we are required to maintain the wilderness character," she said.

Among other things, Talbott said, is that a wilderness designation would give the Chugach managers access to additional federal funds.

The size of the designated Chugach Forest has shrunk and grown over the years. It once included all of the Kenai Peninsula, Afognak Island and surrounded Anchorage.

Today, the 5.6-million acres of the Chugach are divided into three zones: The Glacial Ranger District encompasses most of western Prince William Sound and includes the Begich, Boggs Visitors Center at Portage. It totals roughly 2.41 million acres.

The Seward Ranger District covers the western-most 890,000 acres of the forest.

The 2.3 million-acre Cordova Ranger District links the Copper River Delta and the southeastern end of Prince William Sound.

The three districts include the waters of Prince William Sound, abundant wetlands, soaring mountain peaks rising from valleys submerged beneath magnificent glaciers, untouched tundra and forested areas dominated by Sitka spruce, western hemlock and mountain hemlock.

Here on the Kenai Peninsula, visitors access the Chugach by water, including tour boat charters and kayak adventures into the fjords along the peninsula's eastern coastline, and by land, hiking, skiing and biking along numerous public trails including the famous and popular Resurrection Pass Trail and Russian Lakes Trail, which combined cover 60 miles. Anglers, meanwhile, ply great fisheries on the Russian and Kenai rivers.

Humans share the Chugach with a wide variety of wildlife, including bears, wolves, moose, muskrats, Dall sheep, mountain goats, goshawks, eagles, ducks and murrelets, sea otters and whales. Humans and wildlife tend to congregate in the verdant river valleys where their activities and habitat requirements can often to conflict.

Chugach Forest managers must strike a balance between protecting wildlife and providing access to visitors.

Over the past two years, the forest service has conducted workshops aimed at developing a Kenai winter access management plan in response to public demand for winter recreational opportunities. Among other things, that will mean determining where and when winter motorized access would be allowed.

Talbott said a final decision on the plan is expected within a month.

Another program links the Alaska Railroad and the Forest Service, which have joined to develop Whistle Stop stations in the forest's backcountry. According to a forest service flier, "this partnership provides opportunities for sustainable tourism, benefits local economies, and opens the heart of the Alaskan backcountry to people of all abilities."

The first of five Whistle Stop stations is set to open shortly. Depending on funding, the four others could be completed in the next few years. According to the service, modern, self-propelled passenger cars will take people deep into the inaccessible, roadless backcountry. Passengers will be able to get off at the whistle stops for short walks, or take longer hikes on trails complete with cabins and campsites, linking up with the rail system again further down the line, Talbott said.

The stations will include amenities such as wheelchair lifts, toilets, shelters and information kiosks.

The program was furthered in 2006 by a $4.7 million Federal Transit Administration grant that will help purchase a self-propelled rail car capable of carrying 150 people. The cars are 50 percent more efficient and produce 72 percent less pollution than traditional diesel locomotives. Another grant proposal this year seeks funding for a second car.

In all, the whistle stop project will include the five stations, 31 miles of trails and associated bridges, six public-use cabins and 24 campsites.

Another issue concerns possibly increasing access to Twentymile River in the Portage Valley on Turnagain Arm. A new permit allocation equation could boost commercial use from 600 to 13,000 people within the May-October season. Some increase already has raised some concern about how much use is too much. The issue is still open, Talbott said.

Chugach managers are also considering a proposal for four large cabins along a trails system east of the Seward Highway to be managed by a nonprofit organization, Alaska Huts Association. The system is known as the Mills Creek-Iditarod Trail Hut-To-Hut System. No final decision has been made.

"The question coming before public is how much public access is coming and where and what is the right balance, the right mix. It is truly a democratic question," Talbott said.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.

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